Alex Winter interview: Grand Piano, Bill & Ted, Deep Web

Director, actor and former Bill & Ted star talks about his latest film, Grand Piano, his documentary Deep Web, and lots more...

Although perhaps best known for his roles in two Bill & Ted films and The Lost Boys, Alex Winter is equally at home behind the camera, having spent the last two decades working predominantly as a director – from the cult classic Freaked, through various music videos, adverts and movies, up to his recent documentary Downloaded (which tells the story of Shawn Fanning and Napster) and the upcoming, Kickstarted-funded Deep Web.

Recently, however, he’s taken a rare step back into acting, appearing alongside Elijah Wood and John Cusack as a villainous usher in Eugenio Mira’s stylish thriller Grand Piano. We caught up with Alex down the line from his new home base in LA, to discuss his work on both sides of the actor-director divide.

So I guess the first question, really, is having been out of acting and behind the camera for so long, what was it about this project that drew you back in to the other side?

You know, it was kind of a combination of things. It was the audacity of the material, for one. When I talked to Eugenio, who I very much admire, I realised it was going to be that kind of “swing for the fences”, almost ludicrous throwback to kind of silent and pre-Hollywood Hitchcock, which I’m a fanatic for – it’s my favourite era of his – and also the kind of ‘80s tropes, like Brian De Palma, and even certain comedies. There’s a full levity to this thing, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. So I knew that Eugenio was going to come at this movie in a hyper-cinematic way, and I was a fan of his – and I was also a fan of the producer, Rodrigo Cortés, who had made Buried, which I loved. And then you have Elijah Wood, and John Cusack, and all these people I knew and loved. And, you know, I like playing villains! And it fit with my schedule, which oftentimes this stuff doesn’t when I get asked. I’d just finished Downloaded, and I hadn’t started gearing up on my next one which I’m doing, so I just thought “Why not?”

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And I’d been studying… I continue to train as an actor, I study continually, I never stopped doing that. I kind of missed doing stuff – I wanted to test out that work in the wild again. So that was a part of it too, probably. 

Do you generally keep yourself open to acting roles as an ongoing thing?

I really don’t – I haven’t, by nature, been available at all. I haven’t even had an acting agent, I just bailed out and immersed myself in my writing and directing, which I love, and have been happily doing for the last 20 years. But, you know, we’ve been working on this third Bill & Ted, and when that gets made I’m going to be acting in that – so I think it was just the desire to do a little more work back in that arena first.

I also moved back to LA, from New York and London, and when you’re here, you just kind of get pestered a little more for that stuff, and you’re a little more entrenched in that end of the industry. So it was a little easier for me not to worry about it when I was just tucked away and doing my thing, but back here in LA I’ve been getting pestered about it more than I had before. So it sort of woke me up to it a bit!

You mentioned the appeal of playing a villain in Grand Piano – what in particular about that appeals to you?

You know, it’s funny, I’ve always – not intentionally, but I’ve always played primarily clowns and bad guys. And I don’t exactly know why that is – I know they’re really fun to play, and I know that I like extremes. I like that in my directing work, as well, I like either end of the spectrum as opposed to the middle of the spectrum. I do a lot of comedy directing, but I also do a lot of pretty intense dramatic directing – I don’t tend to do the middle. In my commercial work I’m more likely to do something that’s very over the top comedic, like a lot of my English commercials, or something a lot edgier. I’m not going to be the guy doing a commercial about pet food.

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So I guess it appeals to my sensibilities – I really like inhabiting something, all in, and with villains and clowns you’re really inhabiting the characters all in. There’s nothing blithe about it. Playing Bill was really really fun – and I think one of the reasons the Bill & Ted films did so well is that for me and Reeves both, it was just super infectious. I’m nothing like that guy, and Reeves is nothing like that guy, but it was really fun to play Bill – this really strange, idiosyncratic character. And it was played one hundred per cent straight, without any winks to the audience at all.

And then with killers, it’s the same, you’re really all in. Thematically, I’m really interested in the people on the outer edges of society, because that’s where the really interesting stuff is happening. It’s like the documentary I’m making now, on the Deep Web, it’s all about that – these people, whether they’re criminals, or dissident journalists, or crypto-currency anarchists, these people are on the outer edges, and I find them far more connected to the real world than people who aren’t on the outer edges. 

Do you think it plays with the audience’s expectations when you play a killer like this? You have a very likeable public persona, and obviously you’re most known for playing such a likeable character as Bill… is it fun to play off that?

I think that was more for the audience… and I think for Eugenio, definitely. I think for him to have me and John Cusack as the two primary villains, hounding Elijah Wood, who is known by the audience as this good-hearted beacon of virtue – the meta nature of that was absolutely at the forefront of his mind, there’s no doubt. The theatre that the story takes place in is called the “Anthony Michael Hall” – that’s intentional! There’s a meta link to ‘80s iconography that is one hundred per cent intentional on Eugenio’s part.

But I can say that as an actor, it never really crossed my mind. It’s not that I didn’t get it, but there’s nothing as an actor that I could do with that. And Eugenio didn’t want us playing this movie with a nod and a wink, that would have been disastrous. So for me, all I did was investigate who this guy was, what his backstory was, how he killed people… and how in fact, do you kill a human being? I remember Allen [Leech] was mortified when I turned up on set because I said “I’ve been talking to a marine, to understand how I’m going to kill you,” and he was like, “Jesus Christ, don’t actually do it, I’ve got to show up to film more Downton Abbey next season!”

But I wasn’t really thinking about “How would Bill S. Preston be a killer in this landscape?” My brain would be undone by that!

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As someone who’s primarily a director yourself, is it hard to restrain yourself from thinking how you’d do things differently when you’re working with someone else and their vision?

It isn’t really, no. I think honestly, they’re very different disciplines, and I don’t link them in my brain at all – they’re sort of inverse for me. One of the funny things that everyone said to me when I quit acting in ’94, it’s kind of a cliché, but they said “Oh, I guess you just want more control.” But it’s really the opposite – it’s one of the great misunderstandings of acting and directing. As a director you have very little control – you have a certain degree of aesthetic control, but even then, you’ve got a boss who has to approve things, and you have insurance people on set making sure you don’t screw up, and you have actors with a lot of power who have a lot to say in terms of what you’re doing. And you’re delegating to a team of people, and if you’ve hired good people you should be following their direction as well. A good cameraman, a good sound person, a good editor… I’m certainly interested in what they have to say.

Whereas as an actor, you have complete one hundred percent control. Of course, the director can take your performance and screw it up, but in terms of your work, in terms of when you show up that day to work – it’s you, in a bubble, and you’re it, end of story.

I don’t act with an eye to how the crew is working – part of the joy of acting is that I couldn’t care less what’s going on outside the immediate circumstances of my character! 

Moving on to your own behind-the-camera work, you’ve been working in documentaries, first with Downloaded last year and now this new film Deep Web. How did your interest in that subject come about?

Well, I’d come off Downloaded, having been immersed in the world of emerging technologies on the one hand, and this growing, powerful ideological movement on the other – mostly youth-oriented. And that’s really what Downloaded was about, it wasn’t really about file-sharing at all, but about almost a philosophical visionary, which was Shawn Fanning, partnering up with Sean Parker, and creating something that was in Fanning’s case really with no interest in money at all. It was an ideological vision to connect people together via the internet in a communal fashion. Which had never ever been done beforehand on a global scale. And Napster was absolutely the first of a global movement which led to not only things like Facebook, but to Wikileaks and the Arab Spring and Edward Snowden.

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So fast forward to 2014, and the somewhat naive but good-intentioned vision of Shawn Fanning has given birth to a massive and highly contentious global movement that spans everything from the black market and the Dread Pirate Roberts – who had a very similar vision to Fanning’s, with just as little interest in money and just as much of a philosophical desire to bring people together. The Silk Road was not at its root about drugs and money at all, it was all about a kind of libertarian ethos of separating the individual from the constraints of corporations and governments, and allowing them to communicate and operate with each other outside of that jurisdiction. And cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was the perfect engine to fuel that. So just as Napster was such a genius invention that it gave birth to these other means – some of which were legitimate like the iTunes Store – the Silk Road gave birth to the legitimacy of Bitcoin and the idea of transacting and communicating online in a much more private and anonymous fashion than people were able to before.

And that’s what my movie’s about – it’s about an ideological movement, and how it presents itself, not just in the black market but also with journalists and dissidents and people all over the world who need and want anonymity and privacy. It’s not just about having “something to hide”, at all – it’s about a massive and very vital global movement.

With Downloaded, you were telling the story of something that had largely happened ten, fifteen years ago – whereas with Deep Web it’s very much something that’s still going on right now. How much do you have to change your approach for that?

It’s very different. Well, in some ways it’s similar, in that I always go after the people – I’m more interested in the people, and I’m less interested in the technology, and in what may seem like the surface issues. With Downloaded I was completely uninterested in making a movie about file sharing, and the implications of whether it’s right or wrong – it’s all been over-talked to death, and it wasn’t the story. The heart of the story, for me, was about a young naive visionary, completely outside the system, who set out to create a global community and succeeded – and was basically dismantled for it. Right or wrong, that’s what happened, and that’s the story I was interested in. With Silk Road it’s similar, it’s the story beneath the story that I’m most interested in, and that has drawn me to the main characters involved – and I’m very grateful that they’ve all participated, so I have what I think is probably the most exclusive access to the core architects of all these areas.

Where it’s different is exactly what you said – it’s extremely difficult to build a narrative out of a story that’s happening in real time, compared to a story that had a beginning middle and end 15 years prior. And there’s different ways I’m going about that. One of the chief ways I went at this was that I purposefully hired a narrative editor to cut Downloaded, someone who didn’t come from documentaries at all. Because I knew that since it had a very classical three-act structure baked into its history, and we all knew how it was going to end, I’d be better served having a narrative editor cut it than a doc editor.

Whereas with Deep Web, I went completely the other way, and I hired one of my favourite documentary editors in the business: a guy named Dan Swietlik, who cut An Inconvenient Truth, and Sicko, and a bunch of great docs. I hired him to cut this movie, because he and I basically had to find this story together. Ross Ulbricht, the kid who’s accused of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, goes to trial in a few weeks, and we don’t know how that’s going to end, and we don’t know how everything’s going to work out with Bitcoin. The Feds and the NSA are all over these technologies, and we don’t know if they’re going to get cracked, or broken, or dismantled. So that’s very different!

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So where’s the Deep Web film up to, in terms of production, and release, and so on?

Well, we’re all in, I’m fully funded, I sold it to a distributor – I’m making it every day, all day, for the foreseeable future. I’m literally driving to the edit right now! I’m coming to London to shoot this weekend… I can’t actually divulge who I’m shooting, because some of these people are not utterly above the law! But I’m shooting, and I’m cutting, and we’re making it! It’s awesome, actually, I’m really enjoying this project.

So I wouldn’t be forgiven, writing for this website, if I didn’t ask you at least a little bit about Bill & Ted. Something I was wondering was why you think it’s resonated the way it has for the last 25 years, and what about it has been so special?

You know, I think that… well, the first thing is just that we don’t know. And when I say “we”, as we get together to do this third one, I mean me and Keanu, and Chris and Ed, the two writers. We’re really the ones who feel the most ownership of these characters, and we’re really close, and we talk about this a lot. And you don’t know why something hits the zeitgeist or not. Honestly, you don’t. Nobody does.

But I do think that there is a sincerity to the way they were written, by two really close friends; there’s a sincerity to the way they’re acted, also by two close friends… I mean, Keanu is basically like my brother. To this day, we’re just really close. The films were made very un-cynically – they were independent movies, they were not studio movies, they were made to some degree with low expectations. They were just very sincere, and I think that’s infectious. I think that there’s a warmth and a non-pandering to these guys, and to the tone of the movies… I mean, it’s not Citizen Kane, they’re not going to be on Sight & Sound’s list any time soon, but you pop those movies in, and they will make you feel good. It’s an un-guilty pleasure – they will make you feel good because they were made, and I say this without a trace of irony, they are made with love. They are made with genuine friendship. And I think that’s infectious, when that lightning strikes. 

As for another decidedly “cult” thing you were involved with, how do you feel about Freaked, looking back on it now, and the reputation that’s developed over the years?

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You know what… huge, huge gratitude. I mean, that is like one of those happy accidents that should not have been made, barely got made, and barely got released. And I’m so grateful that we got that thing done, and that with all the political crap we went through with the studio, that it managed to get out into the world and accumulate a fanbase and that it’s still going, and people still love it, and people still watch it! That is like… we were two 25-year-old kids, and we’d never shot 16mm, and to be fair to Fox Studios, that film was rigorously un-mainstream, to its core – it’s basically a $25million cult movie! I can’t even say I understand why they backed it! They were probably horrified, that it somehow managed to sneak through the cracks, but it did! And it got made with the right cast, and the right crew, and it got finished and it got out there, so I’m just hugely grateful.

I have no ill feelings towards any of it, because you get older, and getting movies made is hard, and there are so many that didn’t get made and got really close – so you end up with a lot of gratitude for the ones that get through.

Do you have any plans to work with Tom Stern on anything again in the future?

Well, Tom’s one of my very best friends, and we both live in LA, we both have kids the same age and they’re super-close friends. So we’re really tight, and we talk about it a lot, but we haven’t really found a way in. A couple of years back, we tried to get The Idiot Box back on again, and we wrote a pilot with Tim Burns, the original writer who wrote Freaked with us. The pilot was really funny, and MTV were looking at it, but… well, our work together was really uncompromising, and it was really specific – and very, very violent, and very extreme! But it’s hard to get that kind of stuff made, and I don’t know if either of us would want to do anything that was a compromise. So The Idiot Box was a test of the waters, and it was very violent, the revision that we did – and MTV was just mortified, they were like “Are you guys out of your mind, there’s no way we can do this!” But we were like, we don’t really want to do anything else, so let’s just put it to bed.

But maybe we’ll revisit it as a web series… I think if we work together again, that’s probably what we’d do, just make The Idiot Box again for the web, and literally just put it online, sink or swim.

And finally, I’ll round off by asking you the standard Den Of Geek question: do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

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Do you know that Jason was in a commercial of mine, in London?

You’re kidding!

I hired Jason to play a German techno DJ, in a Ford commercial I did for the UK! It was a total piss-take of those horrible German DJs, and Jason just totally kills it. This was way before he was acting in those movies… maybe even ten years before Snatch or Lock Stock, or maybe about five before Lock Stock.

I ran into Jason a few weeks ago at a gym in LA, and we laughed our asses off about that. I think he’s awesome, I would say Snatch is my favourite film of his? I think that’s the best movie of that run, too – I think they were firing on all cylinders, and it’s funny, and it’s ludicrous, and it’s really well put together. I like that movie a lot, it’s very entertaining.

I think the Ford ad is probably the winning answer, to be honest! Alex Winter, thank you very much!

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